Lionel Messi returns to international duty this week with the big task of revitalising Argentina’s World Cup qualifying bid. Russia 2018 could be the last chance for major honours for possibly the greatest player of all-time and Tariq Al Haydar tries to explain why Messi’s international career to date has ultimately ended in disappointment.
A reductive narrative has sprouted around Lionel Messi’s international career. Supposedly, his legacy is tarnished by his lack of silverware with Argentina. But let’s take a closer look at Messi’s international career, which can be divided into four phases: 2005-08, 2008-2011, 2011-2014 and 2014-2016.
Messi made his debut under José Pékerman, who led Argentina into the 2006 World Cup. After their loss in the quarter-final to Germany, Pékerman was criticized for leaving Messi (and Javier Saviola) on the bench and wasting his final substitution on a Julio Cruz-for-Crespo swap while ahead 1-0. He was replaced by Alfio Basile, who lost the 2007 Copa América Final.
During this phase, teenage Messi was in the same stage of his career as Ghostface was during 36 Chambers; undeniable but yet to reach the levels of Supreme Clientele.
Argentina were tactically sound. Both Pékerman and Basile knew how to get close to the maximum from the players they had. To illustrate: Pékerman may have made a mistake against Germany, but his general tactical set-up was highly intelligent; By deploying Nicolás Burdisso, a natural centre-back, at right-back, he gave captain Juan Pablo Sorín license to maraud up the left flank. Cambiasso shadowed Riquelme, to ensure the playmaker always had an outlet who could also break up play.
They played an attractive, cohesive brand of football and scored some of the goals of the tournament, including the sensational 24-pass masterpiece against Serbia. Do yourself a favor and re-watch that goal again and again and again, because it might just be the best that’s ever been scored. And Messi was on the bench.
Diego Maradona’s appointment as coach of Argentina in November 2008 marked the beginning of Argentina’s epoch of farce. While Phase one yielded only an Olympic gold and no major senior titles, those Argentina teams always had thought and preparation behind them. Maradona notoriously called up more than 100 players during his 18-month reign, including players in their thirties who had zero international caps (Juan Mercier) and others who were clearly washed up (Martín Palermo, Ariel Ortega).
The problem with Maradona’s approach was that it was appeared almost completely random. He consistently made decisions that did not follow logically from previous decisions.
A good example of this is Jonás Gutiérrez. A few months before the World Cup, Maradona had declared that his team was “Mascherano, Messi and Jonás plus eight.” Why did he deem Jonás so important? What kind of tactical role did he have in mind? In Argentina’s first two matches—against Nigeria and South Korea— he deployed Jonas, a wide midfielder, out of position at right-back. Jonás was then unceremoniously dropped for the rest of the tournament and replaced with first Burdisso and then Otamendi, both centre-backs. These strange and dramatic decisions might have made sense if right-back were a problem position for Argentina, but Maradona had the legendary Javier Zanetti at his disposal and opted not to call him up (for footballing, rather than personal reasons).
Argentina lined up against Germany in a peculiar 4-1-1-4 formation. Messi was asked to act as a de facto central midfielder, receiving possession near the halfway line, about thirty yards from his most dangerous positions, and was reduced to lofting hopeful long balls to the armada of Argentine forwards and wingers on the other side of Germany’s five-man midfield. Of course, Germany shredded Argentina’s non-existent middle, ruthlessly exposing a young Otamendi, who was stranded at right-back, and perhaps damaging his development as a player.
Sergio Batista, who coached Argentina at the 2011 Copa América, continued Maradona’s farcical methodology of sudden, seemingly impulsive, wholesale changes. Five starters in the quarter-final against Uruguay did not play in the opener against Bolivia. Batista, like Maradona, simply attempted every variety of lineup and tactical formation, only to discard it and try another the very next match.
Unlike Maradona, whose only post-Argentina coaching gig was a 14-month debacle at Al-Wasl, a club in the United Arab Emirates, or Batista, who went on to coach in China and Bahrain, Alejandro Sabella at least had some pedigree as a coach. He had led Estudiantes to a Copa Libertadores title in 2009 playing a defensive style, conceding only twice in eleven games.
Sabella, however, recognized the offensive threat he had in the “fantastic four” of Messi, Di María, Agüero and Higuaín, and adapted accordingly by building the team around them. Di María’s peak is generally regarded to have been during Real Madrid’s 2014 Champions League campaign, when Ancelotti used him not as a winger, but as a sort of ‘narrow winger,’ a winger-central midfielder hybrid who instigated the break and burst forward from deep to support the front three.
Sabella used Di María in a similar fashion, and the results were spectacular in qualifying. Argentina finished in top spot, with the most prolific offense (35 goals) and the second-best defense (15 goals conceded compared to Colombia’s 13). More importantly: Messi (10 goals), Higuaín (9 goals), Agüero (5 goals) and Di María (3 goals) executed intricate combinations, and were especially devastating as a tandem on the counter.
Unfortunately, injuries hampered the ‘fantastic four’ during the 2014 World Cup. Agüero played sparingly due to a thigh injury he picked up with Manchester City. In a match against Internazionale a little over a month prior to the World Cup, Higuaín was stretchered off with an ankle injury that clearly affected his play in the tournament. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Di María limped off during the quarterfinal against Belgium with a muscle tear and was ruled out for the rest of the competition. In the face of these setbacks, Sabella reverted to the old defensive tactics that brought him success with Estudiantes, and Messi was forced to carry the offensive burden alone, only marginally supported by an out-of-sorts Higuaín.
Some in Argentina blamed Sabella for not calling up players who could have stepped in for the injured stars. Tevez, Lamela, Banega and Pastore come to mind, for example but at least Sabella had a vision of the kind of team he wanted to build and excluded some of the aforementioned players because of team chemistry. I don’t necessarily agree with every selection he made, but at least I know that Sabella is a competent manager who might have achieved more if he’d caught a couple of breaks.
Gerardo Martino is also a competent manager, but one who is not suited for Argentina. Tata achieved great success with Paraguay, whom he guided to the quarter-final of the World Cup (for the first time ever) and the 2011 Copa América Final.
Tata is a good fit for a team like Paraguay, who utilized a compact 4-3-3. Tata builds the foundation of his team on a solid defense and hopes to steal a goal on the counter from only a handful of chances. As Carlos Menotti pointed out before the 2016 Copa Centenario Final, “Tata likes to play with three combative midfielders…Now the team sits back more and doesn’t pressure as high up the pitch. Up front they don’t create much play, but they have Messi.” In the final third, especially against quality opposition, Tata’s Argentina relied too often on moments of individual brilliance or opportunistic strikes, as opposed to coordinated collective movement.
I like how Chris Ryan put it: “If Messi is God, then he needs his angels.” But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the problem is embedded in the metaphor: Messi is not God. In fact, he’s less omnipotent than a tennis player.
For a long time, I believed in the myth of Diego Maradona, that he really did drag a team of nobodies to World Cup glory through sheer will and talent. Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid disabused me of that illusion; Argentina headed into the 1986 World Cup in horrific form, having won only three of fifteen matches (a run that included losses to the likes of China.) Manager Carlos Bilardo made the then-revolutionary decision to play a back three, which was unheard of at the time. Bilardo’s tactical revolution provided Maradona with the optimal context in which he could unleash his brilliance, with a five-man midfield behind him, Jorge Valdano in front of him, and Jorge Burruchaga, scorer of the goal that won the Final, bursting forward from deep.
Messi may well be the finest player ever, but he ultimately can be nothing more than a soccer player. Any soccer player doesn’t even exert as much influence on a match as a basketball player does on a game. Even if LeBron James were inserted into the most dysfunctional environment, he could never find himself thirty yards from the rim with the shot clock winding down. Kevin Garnett was wrong: some things are simply impossible.
Tariq al Haydar’s short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Down & Out, DIAGRAM, The Los Angeles Review and others. Follow him on Twitter: @talhaydar